Indian Farmers' Protests: A Referendum on Narendra Modi

Kicking off his eighth year in office, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi flails in deep water after introducing three bills that overturned a decades-old agricultural system last September. The bills would uphold the private sector’s right to freely participate in the market, hoard produce, and push direct contracts with farmers used to selling goods en masse to government-regulated wholesale markets at a fair, government-assured price. Yet even after touting such radical changes, it appears as though Modi did not anticipate the furious backlash from a nation whose largest sector is agriculture. His administration has failed to quell both the hundreds of thousands of farmers (many of whom are Sikh) protesting in outdoor camps for months, and opposition party members’ eager condemnations of Modi’s refusal to allow further committee inspection of the bills. After 11 rounds of failed negotiations and a violent stand-off between rogue farmers and police officers in their Republic Day march to New Delhi, tensions between the two sides have reached a breaking point.

With the farmers’ refusal to accept anything other than a full repeal of the bills, the nation teeters on the edge of pandemonium—and the government, being the instigator, must be the first to budge. Modi’s hasty deregulation of Indian agriculture only exacerbates the financial vulnerability of India’s farmers while grossly overlooking the agricultural sector’s long-standing environmental and financial problems. To prevent the current conflict from erupting into absolute chaos, the prime minister must not only change the divisive policies but amend the flaws in his own nationalist attitude in governing India.

India’s current low-productivity, low-income agriculture desperately needs reform. The disastrous impacts of the Green Revolution-era practices from the 1960s, including extreme chemical damage to soil, massive surpluses of crops, and depletion of groundwater, have nearly annihilated this important sector: despite more than 60 percent of Indians depending primarily on agriculture, it only accounts for around 15 percent of the nation’s economic output. The piling debts and bankruptcies that accompanied the steadily declining income from agriculture have fueled a frightening suicide epidemic in farming communities since the 1990s.

However, Modi is entirely mistaken in his belief that the sudden corporatization of agriculture will somehow fix its deep-rooted problems. Around 2006, similar reforms enacted in the farming State of Bihar resulted in neither greater private investment nor greater productivity—as Modi currently promises—but greater financial losses, with prices for 100 kg of rice plunging to a mere 56 percent of the original government-mandated price in the open market. The inevitable failures of a complete economic overhaul would further worsen the farmer’s mounting mistrust of the government. 85 percent of the agricultural workforce are small, marginal farmers collectively working on 47 percent of total farming land—Modi’s ideal market would allow corporations, famously friendly with his office, to steamroll independent, vulnerable farmers without government protections in price negotiations, thereby sharply reducing their already menial income. A particularly corporation-favoring clause in the bills that effectively forbids legal recourse against a party acting in “good faith” only reinforces the economic inequality in a nation still struggling with the consequences of its caste system’s harsh social stratification. For the Sikh community in particular, the bills are an affirmation of a new economically-based caste system. Cutting off the judicial sector as an impartial source of help would effectively imprison farmers in the place from which Modi claims to be freeing them: a financial catastrophe.

However, the problem ultimately lies in Modi himself, who is far from the unifying character essential to maintaining the world’s most populous democracy. His staunch Hindu nationalism only incites further conflicts between religious majorities and minorities, as seen with his silence on his ministers’ false labeling of the Sikh protesters as right-wing separatists. Moreover, his authoritarian tactics, such as his recent jailing of journalists and opposition party members who dare take the side of protesters on counts of sedition, do little to rally respect for him.

Through his brash actions and divisive character, Modi has exacerbated existing problems; nevertheless, he still has a tiny window of time to mitigate the effects of the recent backlash. If Modi truly wishes to increase the productivity of the agricultural sector, he must look at the very root of the problems preventing the sector from flourishing. Instead of giving power to corporations, he must redirect that power to scientists adept at ensuring how to simultaneously gain maximum gains from farmlands in an environmentally sustainable manner. Instead of risking the elimination of the popular wholesale market system and government-instituted minimum prices, he must reaffirm his verbal support of the two by legally guaranteeing government protection for them. Moreover, rather than pushing poor compromises that the infuriated farmers will never agree upon, Modi must repeal the laws and start entirely anew with proper procedure. Finally, Modi should reflect on how his actions, such as his use of sedition laws and doubling down on Hindu nationalism have endangered the integrity of India’s democratic system. He must learn from his mistakes and resolve the situation through open discussions in Parliament that enable outside scrutiny by citizens and the press alike.

Will a prime minister as headstrong and uninterested in cooperation as Modi be able to support such reforms? He should and he must—for he truly has no other choice. The Prime Minister’s tough-talking, all-powerful reputation is at risk of complete collapse as the highly organized protests become an ever more formidable adversary. The self-preserving Modi would certainly not want to be remembered as a failure, overwhelmed by the righteous anger of small farmers. If not for moral reasons, it would be at least for political and selfish reasons that Modi would agree to the demands of the protesters and salvage what is left of his reputation.

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